7 things to look for during the Patriots’ post-bye schedule

Where do the Patriots need to improve in the second half of the season?

Foxborough, MA 11-13-19: Patriots running backs (left to right) Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead are pictured.    The New England Patriots held a practice session outside of Gillette Stadium in preparation for their game in Philadelphia on Sunday. (Jim Davis/Globe Staff)
Patriots running backs Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead are pictured. –(Jim Davis/Globe Staff)

COMMENTARY

It’s back to work in Foxborough, where the Patriots come out of their bye week intent on turning an 8-1 start into the 15th first-round bye of the Bill Belichick and Tom Brady era. With seven games to go they’ve got a two-game lead in that pursuit and are still up a game on the Ravens in the race for the AFC’s No. 1 seed. Here’s a look at what lies ahead for the Pats over the course of that sprint to the postseason:

1. Better competition … sort of

For all the talk of how easy the Patriots’ schedule was over the first half of the campaign, if the playoffs were starting this weekend New England would’ve faced three of the AFC’s other advancers. The conference’s wild-card entrants would be the Steelers and Bills, both of whom the Patriots have beaten.

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Over the next six weeks, though, things appear to get tougher. In each of their next four games the Pats face a team that’s currently tied for or in possession of a playoff berth, and after a one-week reprieve courtesy of the wretched Bengals they’ll encounter the Bills again.

The stretch begins with both of the NFC East’s 5-4 co-leaders, first the Eagles, then the Cowboys. Then it’s on to two of the AFC’s divisional leaders, and reigning divisional champs, the Texans and Chiefs.

It’s a test, for sure. But because of the inconsistency that’s been shown by each of those teams, the so-called iron on the Patriots’ schedule may not be as tough as some are making it out to be. Combined, those four clubs enter Week 11 with a record of 22-15, with a total point differential of plus-184. By themselves, the 8-1 Patriots have a point differential of plus-172. And the Ravens, Steelers, and Bills have outscored opponents by an aggregate of plus-147.

2. Desperate teams vs. home-field advantage

Despite what may be their underwhelming records, there’s undoubtedly a ton of talent on the teams headed the Patriots’ way over the next four weeks. And likely amplifying that threat is one of sports’ great equalizers: Desperation.

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The Eagles and Cowboys are tied atop the AFC East, and with the Vikings and Seahawks in command of wild-card opportunities, Philadelphia and Dallas enter the weekend in a nine-game sprint for what’s almost certain to be a single playoff spot. The Texans have won two in a row, but take on the Ravens this weekend and could easily find themselves tied with the Colts for the AFC South lead by the time those teams kick off on Thursday, Nov. 21. And the Chiefs, in part due to Patrick Mahomes’ injured knee but also in part due to their defense, begin the weekend with an equal number of losses as the West-rival Raiders.

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None of those teams has any margin for error at this point, which should translate to motivation beyond what’s already built-in when facing football’s gold standard and taking aim at the bull’s eye the Pats have been wearing for the better part of two decades.

But New England does have another tried-and-true asset in its favor. After going to Philly this weekend, they’ll play four of their remaining six games at home — including the tilts against the Cowboys, Chiefs, and Bills. Aside from the trip to Houston, the only travel in the final six weeks is to Cincinnati, where the Bengals may still be winless and with far more motivation to lose than to win. Even the games against Buffalo and Miami, which can be trap-laden locales in the late season, will be played in Foxborough this December.

3. Average pass defenses and pass rushes

Last time out, the Patriots had mixed results against a Ravens team that blitzes more frequently than any other in football and is, according to passer rating, one of the NFL’s toughest teams to throw against. Between now and when they welcome the Bills in Week 16, however, the Pats don’t figure to face a team that’s anywhere near as aggressive or effective against the pass.

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New England’s next four opponents all enter this week having yielded an opponents’ passer rating between 89 and 99, which translates to between 12th and 19th league-wide. Generally speaking their numbers are in the middle of the pack across the board, and none are remarkable in the rate at which they pressure or reach the quarterback.

Individually, the Cowboys’ Robert Quinn ranks 10th with 7.5 sacks, but he’s the only top-20 pass rusher a beleaguered offense line will need to stave off over the next month. And these groups aren’t exactly ballhawks, either, with the Eagles — at eight — the only of the Patriots’ remaining opponents with more than six interceptions so far.

Especially if Mohamed Sanu and N’Keal Harry can continue their development as trusted targets, there may be an opportunity for Brady to enjoy a strong second half.

4. Now may not be the time to establish the run.

Lending additional credence to the idea that the Pats may lean more on their passing game is what New England may run into over the next few weeks if they attempt to establish the run.

Coming out of the bye, with the weather turning cold, and with a chance to diagnose its issues, this may seem on the surface like a great time for the Patriots to try reasserting the running attack that appeared to be such a strength before the start of the year. But over the next three weeks, the Pats will take on two of the four NFL teams giving up fewer than 90 rushing yards per game this season, and sandwiched between them is a contest against a Cowboys club that was in the same realm until the Vikings’ Dalvin Cook carved them up on Sunday night.

There should be chances to run the ball in December, with the Chiefs and Bengals looming, but before then might not be the best time to try get Sony Michel going.

5. Third-down threats

The Patriots’ third-down defense has been brilliant to this point, allowing conversions at a rate roughly equivalent to once every six attempts, though that league-best success will be tested over the weeks to come.

Carson Wentz, Dak Prescott, Deshaun Watson, and Mahomes is an impressive cast of dynamic young quarterbacks, and the teams at their trigger hands have all been among the seven best on third down this season. The Eagles welcome the Pats this weekend with the third-best third-down conversion percentage (48.4), trailing only the Cowboys (51.4) and Ravens (48.6), the latter of which hit on five of 10 in its head-to-head before New England’s bye. The Pats will need to immediately show they’ve sealed the holes tore open by Lamar Jackson and the multi-faceted threat Baltimore presented, and could be approximated by the running ability of the QBs next to come. And, later, Buffalo’s Josh Allen, too.

The Texans are sixth on third down (46.8) while the Chiefs are seventh (45.2). Generally, those four teams also do a good job of not giving away turnovers, too — so the next month could really be a chance for the Patriots to validate themselves as an all-time defense, not just by limiting scoring, but just by successfully getting off the field.

6. Offenses that can capitalize

With success on third down naturally comes chances to score, and the first four games of the Pats’ post-bye slate are against teams that capitalize on those opportunities better than New England does. Dallas, Kansas City, and Houston rank Nos. 2, 3, and 4 across the NFL in points per possession, with Philadelphia (11th) slightly ahead of the Patriots (12th).

All three of the Chiefs, Cowboys, and Texans are producing points on at least 43 percent of their drives (the league average is 35.5 percent), and each of those teams is also gaining an average of more than 37 yards per series (the league average is 31.1). Contributing to that scoring rate for the Bills, Texans, and Eagles, in particular, are offenses that rate among the league’s eight best in the red zone.

7. Familiar faces abound

Many of the faces on both sides have changed since the Eagles and Patriots met in the Super Bowl some 21 months ago, but after stopping in Philadelphia the schedule will present the Patriots with some intriguing reunions.

First will be Michael Bennett, who is set to make his return to Foxborough exactly a month after being traded out of town. (In two games with the Cowboys he’s played 59 percent of Dallas’s defensive snaps and has six hits on the quarterback.)

The next week in Houston they’ll reconnect with head coach Bill O’Brien, defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel, and a few others who’ve been through their system. After that it’s time to face a Kansas City team the Pats took on in last season’s AFC championship game, and will be encountering for the fourth time in 27 months. Then after an anonymous week against the Bengals it’s back to divisional play, with former Pats assistants Brian Daboll calling plays for the Bills, and Brian Flores running the show for the Dolphins.

All that considered, there shouldn’t be many surprises moving forward from here.

That is, unless the Patriots finish the regular season with a record worse than 13-3.

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